The Sled Dog

The history of the sled dog is long and proud, the people of the North were dependent on their dogs for protection, companionship, hunting, trapping and most of all for transportation. Sled Dogs have enabled explorers such as Byrd, Peary and Amundsen to explore the frozen wastelands of two continents, playing a vital role in bringing civilisation to the snowbound areas of the world. They have helped men in two World Wars and, of course, the Canadian Mountie owes much of his fame to his team of sled dogs.

One of the proudest chapters in sled dog history was written in 1925 when in January of that year a case of diphtheria was discovered in Nome, Alaska but the supply of serum in the city was inadequate to stave off an epidemic. A relay of twenty-two teams forged their way through the rough interior of Alaska and across the Bering Sea ice to bring supplies from Anchorage to the grateful townspeople of Nome. A statue of Balto, who led one of the teams stands to-day in New York’s Central Park, and the Iditarod Trail Race is held during March of each year to commemorate the Nome Serum Run.

The first sled dog race probably occurred when two trappers challenged each other’s team and dashed their dogs over the ice fields, though the records of formal racing date back to 1908 with the first running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, this being inspired by two children quarrelling over their dogs’ prowess. Their Father, Scotty Allan (a Scot heralding from the Spey Valley) decided that a race would settle matters. This spiralled into a 408 mile race from Nome to Candle and back. Enthusiasm for sled dog racing spread rapidly from that time firstly throughout North America and whilst few inhabitants of the Far North are now dependent upon dogs for basic survival, the same intimate relationship between man and dog still exists and is evidenced through the sport of sled dog racing, which has now emerged into a major worldwide interest with teams working throughout North America, Europe and even as far as Australia and New Zealand.

In Britain the opportunity to work sled dogs is limited. Not only is the weather on the whole against the sport – wheeled rigs are the usual form of transport rather than sleds – but also workings teams are usually owner-driven and not available for hire on a short term basis. The Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain schedule Working Events throughout the Rally Season …. Starting in October, through till March, where spectators are always welcome.

For enthusiasts a visit to a Sled Dog Race, albeit on mud covered forest trails in Great Britain can be exhilarating. The annual Sled Dog Rally in Aviemore, Scotland in January offers the best chance of seeing sled dogs in their natural surroundings (snow), though the fickle British weather has provided the opportunity to bring out the sleds elsewhere at the most unexpected times! Sled dog owners, like their dogs, are on the whole a friendly bunch and will talk for hours about their favourite subject … the sport of sled dog racing and, more particularly, their dogs! Anyone coming to a race should make themselves known, ask for the Rally Organiser to check on where to go and see the racing and what to do out on the trail …. if a three to seven mile walk is on the itinerary.

Should this experience steel anyone on to greater objectives, many trekking teams can be found around the Ski Resorts of Europe and America. A few names are mentioned below together with a Check List of items to ask with your chosen Operator. This form of working sled dogs is entirely different from the Racing Competitions, being likened to pony trekking rather than all out speed and a trip whether for a few hours, a couple of days with overnight stays, or even longer is without doubt one of the most exhilarating experiences on snow. Working Sled Dogs is proving extremely popular as an addition to a Ski Holiday with options to drive or be purely a passenger are usually available, though anyone contemplating going out with a dog team must be generally fit and expect to do a deal of walking through snow.

Dog lovers cannot help but like Sled Dogs. Unfortunately, in times past they must have employed the same PR Company as the Wolf … their ‘press’ is usually bad and most often wildly inaccurate. Though ‘tough’ dogs in as much as their jobs and original lifestyle have not created wimps and they can stand up for themselves when needed, Sled Dogs are on the whole good natured and fun loving characters. Each dog in the team wears an individually-fitted harness of lightweight nylon webbing, padded around the neck and shoulders. The team is hitched to a rig or sled by means of a central rope known as the ‘gangline’, other equipment includes the snub line and snow hook used to secure teams, etc., whips are NOT used. Sleds have changed little from those used in the early days of racing being of traditional design and construction, though the wheeled rigs used in the UK have evolved in recent years with the introduction of new materials and designs to help speed and performance.

Devotees to the sport are born overnight …. once bitten by the bug your two-seater sports car will almost certainly become a Transit Van and your Penthouse Flat a Country Cottage!